The day I met Alex Chilton
by John T. McMullan
One random day in the summer of 1988, I met Alex Chilton in Memphis. I had taken the Tennessee Bar Exam a few days before, and was waiting on the results. At the time, I was making very little money working at First Tennessee Bank. I was also recording radio jingles on the side, but that side of music production felt dirty and wrong to me, and the money wasn’t good there either. For all practical purposes, I was still being supported by my father, and felt broke all the time.
On this particular day, I made my weekly stop at Tobacco Corner, on the corner of Union and McLean, to stand at the magazine rack and absorb Billboard Magazine quickly, and then justify my actions by buying some gum. As I walked in Tobacco Corner, though, a somewhat disheveled guy was standing in my familiar spot, and, coincidentally, was reading a Billboard Magazine. As he saw me approaching, he broke his attention from Billboard, and looked right at me. I immediately recognized him as Alex Chilton, and, before I could think, blurted out at breakneck speed, “You’re-Alex-Chilton-‘September-Gurls’-is-one-of-the-best-songs-ever-written-Big-Star-is-like-Wings-with-better-lyrics-really-cool-strings-on-‘Kizza Me!’”
Alex Chilton smiled. He said in a slow and deliberate drawl, “Yeah, I am, and thanks a lot.” For a long moment, it seemed as though there would be nothing further said, but Alex put down the magazine and mustered, “And who are you?” Wow. The coolest of an ever-shrinking group of musicians I idolized just asked me who I am. It might as well have been Paul McCartney. Or Jeff Lynne. Or Tom Petty. Alex’s question put me at ease, and his Memphis accent instantly cured me of being star stuck. I told him my name, that I had recently moved to Memphis after having graduated from law school at Ole Miss, and that I had come into the store to read this week’s Billboard, just like he was doing.
“Yeah, you caught me,” he said with a partial laugh. “If you’re a lawyer, can’t you afford to buy it? And why would a lawyer want to read this anyway?” I told him that I was not yet a lawyer, as I was waiting on results of the bar exam I had just taken. And, since he asked, it was only right to tell him that I was also a musician, and that several years back my band’s album, THE TREND IS IN!, had gotten a favorable review in Billboard. But that we had since disappeared. He nodded his head and knowingly said, “It happens.”
Even though a cassette copy of his latest solo release, HIGH PRIEST, was right outside in my car, along with a brand new briefcase full of every kind of pen ever manufactured, I was determined to carry on this conversation with Alex Chilton without asking for his autograph. Besides, he had just indirectly compared Big Star to The Trend! There would be no “cool” way now to ask for his autograph.
“So where are you originally from?” While my mind was preoccupied by thinking about what NOT to ask Alex Chilton, he had actually asked me another question. “Kennett, Missouri. 90 miles away up in the Missouri Boot....”
Alex interrupted, “I know where Kennett, Missouri is. We were at a hotel there while ‘The Letter’ was on its way to #1. Our manager booked us to do a high school dance close to there before the record broke.” Seamlessly, he had shifted from Alex Chilton, king of ’80’s underground music, inspiration to The Replacements and R.E.M., to Alex Chilton, former teenage lead singer of that ‘60’s Pop/Soul group, The Box Tops.
“Cool,” I replied, feeling suddenly awkward. Having been reminded that I was speaking with the lead singer of a #1 hit made me more star struck than I was when I first recognized him.
“But I haven’t been back there in over twenty years…” He trailed. Thankfully, his drawl slowed his language down enough for me to recover from my lame response brought on by nervousness.
“Our band played a version of ‘The Letter’ that included the introduction to Heart’s “Crazy On You,” the guitar riff from ‘Ridin’ The Storm Out,’ and the solo from ‘My Sharona.’ I actually skipped a test in college to finish that arrangement,” I proudly exclaimed. “It really kicked!”
“That’s a little different,” he said, as he grimaced in doubtful curiosity.
“I sure never thought I would be talking to you, telling you about it,” I remarked, still not recognizing the lunacy of my telling Alex Chilton that The Trend’s version of HIS number one song “really kicked.”
“So what happened to your band?”
“We got a cool break before we expected it, but my dad wouldn’t let me capitalize on the momentum that Billboard started for us.”
He just looked at me with a squint.
I continued, “Taking any time away from school, even temporarily, to promote a record was not an option with my dad. He kinda took my music career away from me. I get mad every time I think about it.”
He just stood there, nodding at what I had said.
“Well, I have to be somewhere in a couple of minutes,” he said. Before he even finished his sentence, I was already cursing myself for talking to Alex Chilton about my dad instead of Big Star, Jim Dickinson, or the “No Sex” single. Now my one chance conversation with Alex is being wrapped up because I mentioned my dad. Typical. Even five years after the fact, and even at a magazine stand in Memphis, Dad was at it again, shutting down any chance I might have to salvage something in music.
“But if you want to come by tonight we can finish this conversation.”
I certainly wasn’t expecting that.
"I’m at the Holiday Inn right next door. Come by sometime after 8 and have the front desk call my room,” he said as he stuffed the Billboard back into the magazine rack. “Tell them you’re the Billboard guy.”
“See you tonight,” I beamed out.
Back in the car, after my obligatory gum purchase, I cranked up HIGH PRIEST and cruised toward the suburbs, still partly mad at myself for not doing a better job of controlling the conversation. Nevertheless, no less than Alex Chilton had just invited me to hang out. I began mapping out our upcoming meeting in my mind and talking to myself. “No autograph at all. No fan worship. I have to dupe Alex a copy of The Trend’s version of ‘The Letter.’ Maybe he will dig the strangeness of it enough to produce us just like he produced The Cramps! Or maybe he’ll listen to our vinyl album and tell Jim Dickinson to produce us! He will probably be impressed with my ideas enough to hook me up with the people at New Rose Records.”
I could already tell that this was going to be a life changer. Not a dead end like all the other false starts and contacts that ultimately led me exactly nowhere. I could tell. This indeed was going to be a life changer.
Back at my apartment, I found the one and only copy I had of THE TREND IS IN! and played it all the way through to make sure there were no skips or scratches. I then perfected the most pristine cassette dupe I had ever engineered, copying our direct-from-the-board live version of “The Letter” onto the most expensive blank cassette I could find.
As I labeled the cassette I had just recorded for Alex Chilton, the radio was playing Elton John’s most recent hit, “I Don’t Wanna Go On With You Like That.” Although Elton had always been a favorite of mine, I could barely tolerate this song. It suddenly dawned on me that almost every rock musician that I had ever liked had somehow eventually become a disappointment, usually by simply remaining alive, or continuing to record. What happened to New Wave? Those bands had somehow changed during those critical “college radio” years during the ‘80’s, and not for the better. What was happening with the older rockers was, for the most part, far worse. Had John Lennon or Buddy Holly lived, would they have been reduced to creating something as dreadful as Elton’s current hit? Or would they be cool, like Alex Chilton?
Walking into that Holiday Inn at McLean and Union exactly at 8 p.m., I understood just what type of stroke of luck this had turned out to be. To the desk clerk, I said discreetly, “Would you please ring Alex Chilton’s room and advise Mr. Chilton that the Billboard guy has arrived?” She smiled, rang Alex’s room, and passed on the message. Instead of the expected, “He will be right down, sir,” though, the clerk gave me his room number and told me to go right up. A little bit of a curveball, but I was certain to follow all instructions.
The moment I knocked on the door, Alex opened it and invited me to come right in. He pointed to the typical table and two chairs positioned at the window, which I took as a suggestion to sit down. I handed him the cassette of “The Letter” and the vinyl copy of THE TREND IS IN! He looked at the album cover for a moment, and then looked up at me, possibly noticing a difference in the 1982 photographs on the front and back, and the 1988 version of John McMullan. Without saying anything immediately, he nodded, then turned his attention to the cassette. He studied my handwriting on the card insert, and opened the case for a moment. He looked up, glanced around the room, then looked right at me and said, “I will listen to this, but I don’t have anything to play it on in here.” Then he closed the case and tossed it onto one of the two beds in the hotel room. It hit his acoustic guitar case which was also on the bed.
I sank with disappointment, and began to doubt whether he would ever actually play the tape.
After an awkward silence, Alex said, “Well, how did you ever hear of Big Star? That’s how you knew who I am, right? I mean, looking at your album makes me think that you are probably into that music they call power pop.”
Every Big Star fan has a story about how they discovered Big Star. Because of their initial lack of mainstream success, Big Star was rarely heard on the radio. My discovery of Big Star was not necessarily all that exciting, but it WAS exciting for me to tell that story to Alex Chilton himself.
This is how it happened for me, and I am certain that I told Alex Chilton every detail, as the two of us were seated at the table and chairs in his hotel room.
Big Star was introduced to me in the spring of 1983 by Mike Ritt, a DJ that was playing The Trend’s record on WESN in Bloomington, Illinois. To repay me for sending him our vinyl LP, he sent me a mix tape of other stuff he loved and was playing on the radio. As a result, I heard, for the first time, “September Gurls” by Big Star; “We Were Happy There” by The dB's; “You Tore Me Down” by The Flamin’ Groovies; “When She Cries” by The Poppees; and “Cars And Girls” by The Dictators. While another song from that tape, “Here I Go Again” by The Spongetones, initially caught my attention, the song that stuck in my head, above all of these other college radio classics, was “September Gurls” by Big Star.
There was nothing about the sound of Big Star that hinted that they came from Memphis, Tennessee. I presumed they were a New York or London group. Their name reminded me of the grocery store chain called Big Star, as there was a Big Star grocery store in Kennett. I certainly never guessed that this English-sounding band actually named themselves by looking at another location of that same grocery store chain across the street from their recording studio, a mere hour and a half from my own home.
I just kept playing that tape and going back to that song. “September Gurls.” The treble in the guitars bounced right out of the speakers. Other than maybe George Harrison’s guitar solo on The Beatles’ “Nowhere Man,” never before had a guitar sound been so crisp and “blangy.” Each time I rewound the cassette to play it again, I would concentrate on a different aspect of the song. The wistful vocal. Those vague, but longing lyrics. I really wanted to see a record cover, or any visual reference. Because I was hearing it from a mix tape, I had no idea when “September Gurls” was recorded, what label it was on, who wrote it, who the members of the band were, or anything. It was a mystery, but a melodic, lovely mystery, complete with a backstory that I would not know for years.
For about six weeks, this tape was constantly in my car being played. I listened to “September Gurls” and the other favorites of mine over and over. Then, inevitably, other songs came out, and my attention turned elsewhere.
Several months after I received that tape, I borrowed a friend’s copy of the first Big Star album the very moment I discovered that he had it. While I was initially disappointed that “September Gurls” was not on that album, I immediately fell in love with “The Ballad of El Goodo,” “Watch the Sunrise,” “When My Baby’s Beside Me,” and “Thirteen.” Right around that same time, I was in a record store looking for “Little Willy” by Sweet, a classic early ‘70’s bubblegum single on Bell Records, prior to Bell’s name change to Arista Records. “Little Willy” was only available on an Arista compilation album, which also included “The Letter” by The Box Tops. That compilation reminded me how much I loved “The Letter,” and another Box Tops song, “Soul Deep.”
Later, after knowing a little bit about Big Star and also realizing that “The Letter” was by The Box Tops, I happened to hear KCOU in Columbia, Missouri play “The Letter” by The Box Tops followed by “September Gurls” by Big Star. The college DJ, whoever it was, pointed out that, surprisingly, the lead singer on both songs was the same guy, a guy named Alex Chilton. He also said that “September Gurls” came from the album RADIO CITY, giving me some guidance for my next trip to the used record store. RADIO CITY was purchased immediately. Eventually, I tracked down BIG STAR 3RD/SISTER LOVERS as well.
My discovery that this group existed invigorated me. They made me want to write better melodies. It was a privilege to now tell Alex Chilton this chain of events and of the effect that Big Star had on me.
As my story trailed off, Alex, again in his slow, deliberate Memphis drawl said, “It’s always something like that. Except that your discovery of us was directly tied to your own band’s record.”
“Yep, it was,” I answered, looking down at the traffic.
“You loved your band, didn’t you?” Alex half asked, and half stated, more in a tone of statement than question.
“Yes, very much so.”
“You know, I thought about what you said about your dad at the magazine stand. Your dad must really hate music I guess?” Alex nodded and looked directly at me as he slowly finished his question, likely expecting my answer to confirm that I had been raised in military barracks or in a silent house completely devoid of music.
“Actually, my dad loves music, and is an accomplished organist and pianist. My mom, too. She teaches piano now, but before I was born she played in recitals. Classical stuff.”
“You kinda hit the genetic jackpot,” Alex drawled.
“I suppose I did,” I answered, really wanting to change the subject.
“Did your mom teach you piano?”
“Yes, she taught me to read music, and theory, and chord structure. I did classical pieces for judges, and played compositions by the big composers in recitals. She was a drill sergeant to me and my sister, but we know music, that’s for sure.”
“And your dad plays the organ. Does he play in a church?”
“He does. And he’s really good at it. The best I’ve ever heard at that sort of thing,” I said as I looked away, by now REALLY wanting to get on with talking about something else.
“So do you think that church was the reason that he stopped you and your band?”
I sat for a minute and actually thought about it before I answered.
Carefully choosing my words, I said, “No. I don’t think it had anything to do with church music versus rock music, or good and evil, or anything like that. It was more about not letting anything interrupt the education process. He told me that postponing or leaving college for a band, or even for a hit record, would never be worth it.”
“He was certainly right about that,” Alex said immediately.
I was stunned. Speechless.
Alex, not knowing how off-balance his previous sentence had thrown me, picked up THE TREND IS IN! from the table and looked at it closely again. “And if he was the reason that this album disappeared, then you should thank him. Your dad did the ONE THING that could possibly make this album cool.”
I was now stunned, with hurt feelings.
“Look at this. As a rare record, your album looks like a fantastic discovery. With a major label pushing this up into everybody’s face, it wouldn’t be the same. Had you, on the basis of this album, signed with a huge record company, and toured on their advance, they would have changed your sound, owned your songs, and decided who stayed in the band. Even with a hit, by now, a band that looked like this would be over. One single would have been it. And you’d probably still owe money to the company that was moving on and dropping you.”
I looked straight at him, not believing what I was hearing. I understood very clearly every word, of course. I simply had no idea that the rock musician that I THOUGHT was the most rebellious, most irreverent, most underground musician of all time would basically sound like, and side with, my dad. I still was unable to speak.
Alex kept on, though. Still looking at our album cover, he blurted, “This album might contain great songs, but most A&R guys never would have gotten it. They would have signed you, if at all, based on looks, not on the songs on the record. At best, you would have been a teen idol or nothing. Chances are, by now a used-up nothing.”
Finally, I gathered my wits enough to speak, and said, “Well, that’s all easy for you to say. You were touring to support a #1 hit by the time you were 16 or 17.”
“Which is exactly what I mean. Bell Records was finished with me by the time I was 21. You’re older than that right now,” Alex drawled.
“So you’re saying that I am actually fortunate that I don’t have a music career,” I snarled, still smarting from Alex’s previous remarks.
“You have been given the gift of not having to chase a hit or a record boss’s approval. All I am saying is appreciate that. Appreciate the options that your education gives you. And quit being bitter at your dad, mainly because he appears to have saved you a million headaches. I mean, overall, the Bell Record Company was OK to The Box Tops, but I was just doing a job that managers and producers told me to do. I didn’t really enjoy being in the studio for those records, though, because I felt like I was just singing jingles.”
Jingles. Ouch. I looked right at him, and nodded. I knew that exact feeling.
Then, with no particular emotion in his voice, he offered, “I have had a number one record, and I did everything they told me to do. And it was fun for a while. But it’s not worth losing your father over.”
I sat there and looked at the traffic below. “You’re right,” I said quietly. “I guess I have been bitter, expecting him to apologize and make it up to me. And I could be bitter forever, because he never will.”
“He doesn’t owe you an apology,” Alex said bluntly.
Alex took the Trend record out of the jacket and held it with both hands along the edges. He studied one side, then flipped it over quickly and looked at the other.
At that point, Alex was apparently finished making his point, so I asked him, “What would be your suggestion to me about trying to make another album?”
“Being a lawyer will hinder you, no question about that. A lot of record people will dismiss you, far worse than if you were a junkie or if you had some disease. Maybe worse than being a former teen idol. So, you should probably do it yourself, keeping in mind that someday, you will die. The disgrace of being a lawyer won’t matter then. Maybe somebody somewhere will find your trail of recorded work, which will be the only thing left of you. They won’t call them ‘vanity records’ then. Vanity, to me, is to pursue fame with all the time you have, or to make records that aren’t really you, solely for the purpose of being famous.”
I just sat there.
Then, after looking the record completely over again, he put it back in the sleeve and said, “Get into the studio whenever you can, and always do it by paying for it yourself. With your schooling, you ought to work as a lawyer for a year and put back some money for studio time. Then cut what feels right to you and see what happens. Don’t worry about what anybody else thinks about it or calls it.”
My dad had made similar suggestions many times.
“Memphis has the best studios in the world. Maybe you could do legal work for them and trade out your time for studio time.” Alex continued, “Of course, in the music business, if you’re honest, you’ll starve.”
My laughter cut the earlier tension, and he smiled at his jab at both record companies and attorneys.
“So what would you suggest I do if I want to work with Jim Dickinson?” I asked, hoping that Alex would have an easy answer.
“Dickinson,” Alex exhaled deeply, looked straight up at the ceiling, and continued, “…sometimes you wanna hug him, sometimes you wanna slug him.”
“What does that mean?” I asked, afraid that I had asked a prohibited question.
“He IS brilliant. He does what he wants, always. And when he wants, he can climb inside an artist’s vision. But he has to want to first.”
I nodded, thinking that I understood.
Alex clarified, “If you want to work with him, I hope you get the chance someday. That’s just about the best I can do. It’s not like I can make it happen or anything.”
Just then Alex’s room phone lit up and rang. He looked at it with apparent dread for several rings before he finally got up to answer it. As he began to talk, I got up and pointed at the door, to communicate with him that I would happily leave the room if it were necessary. He shook his head and motioned for me to sit back down. I did so, and heard his end of the conversation, as he made no attempt to speak quietly. Obviously, somebody was going to come pick him up relatively soon.
As he hung up the phone, I stood back up, knowing that he was leaving his room soon. I reminded him that my phone number was on a card in the album and in the cassette. He promised to listen to them and call me with any suggestions that he might have. Then, he stopped me from walking out of the room and, almost in an angry voice said, “Listen, I want you to remember one thing from talking to me, and I mean it.”
I said, “Of course,” thinking that he was going to remind me to thank my dad.
He pointed right in my face with his index finger and said, “Lawyers like you always get into politics. It’s like dope you can’t stay away from.”
I had no idea where this came from, or was going.
He continued, “If you ever look up and find that you have become a Senator, I want you to remember me, and remember what I am about to say.”
“I doubt that will ever happen, since I make fun of politicians, and can’t ever see myself becoming one,” I said, still curious about this pronouncement that Alex had for me.
“There is no other option than to go to a four-day work week. The United States of America is doomed until those in the position of power impose a mandatory four-day work week on everybody. Four days a week, no more, no less. I don’t have time to explain it right now, but if you become a person in power, track me down, and it will all make sense.”
As he assured me that his plan was perfect for our country, he had a gleam in his eye that was a little alarming. His personality had completely changed. The Alex Chilton that carried on that conversation with me prior to the phone call was gone. I felt that it was urgent that I leave as quickly as possible.
I made my way to the door of the hotel room, and tried to be courteous and thank Alex for meeting with me. He kept interrupting me, repeating the “four-day work week” mantra. Finally, he shook my hand and allowed me to leave, but only because I promised him that I would help implement the four-day plan if I ever became a politician.
With only the sound of tires on the pavement breaking silence, I drove back to my apartment. I replayed the evening’s entire meeting in my mind and thought about everything Alex Chilton had told me. I tried to see the music world the way he saw it. His angle was understandable, based on what he had been through. He could not be blamed for his negative opinion of big record labels. And, because he had made such a big deal about it, I decided to be grateful, rather than bitter, for Dad’s concerns over my future. Nevertheless, I still felt like I blew a big chance to get somewhere. The whole experience was basically a failure. The only thing that would change my mind about it would be a phone call from Alex.
For the next several weeks, I checked the messages left on my answering machine numerous times a day, hoping to hear Alex Chilton’s voice praising either the record or the tape that I gave him. But no such message ever came. The days went by, and summer began slipping away. Early in the fall, I learned that I had, thankfully, passed the Tennessee bar. Although I was still working at First Tennessee Bank, a whole new world of potential employers was opening up to me.
One Friday during the fall of 1988, while checking my phone messages and holding out hope for some contact from Alex, I heard a disjointed message from my dad. The answering machine had cut him off and I had trouble understanding him. I called him back immediately, thinking that something was wrong, based on the answering machine. As I waited for him to answer my call, I realized just how worried I was about him. Finally, he picked up, and I heard a gruff, “Hello.”
“Dad?” I said, wondering what the whole message thing was about.
“Hey, Hey!” he responded, sounding healthy, happy, and apparently very glad to hear my voice.
“What’s up? I couldn’t figure out your messages,” I said.
“Yeah, I hate that machine of yours. Just wanting to see if you wanted me to stop by and pick you up on my way to Ole Miss tomorrow. They’re playing Tennessee.”
“Sure. Love to,” I replied.
“Great. I have a meeting right now, and have to get to it. I will call you when I leave tomorrow morning so you will know when to expect me there. Just us. Your mother won’t go because she thinks it’s going to rain.”
“I’ll be ready,” I said, before a quick goodbye.
The next morning, Dad arrived at my apartment complex exactly when I expected, and we made our way to Oxford for the football game. All the way down we talked about nothing significant, just general catching up. I remember telling Dad that Mom had made a terrible mistake by giving up her ticket to the game, as it did not appear to me that it was going to rain.
“Well, that’s fine with me. You and I haven’t done anything together in quite a while,” he said in response. He was right
We got to campus very early, and, at my insistence, parked in the law school overflow lot, near the old depot. This meant that we would have an extremely long walk to the stadium, but both Dad and I loved everything about the Ole Miss campus. As we walked through the crowd in The Grove, it began to sprinkle. Our umbrellas were in the trunk of the car, now very far from us. We did have ponchos, which Dad carried per Mom’s instructions. But, as it was just misting, we laughed and vowed to tough it out and walk on. Soon we were in the stands at the stadium, sitting on the ponchos because the seats were slightly wet, using them as cushions to keep our pants dry. Or so we thought.
Suddenly, the wind howled. Before anyone could move, sheets of the most torrential rain I had ever seen fell on the stadium. We were soaked completely through before we could even unfold the ponchos that were supposed to keep us dry. It rained sideways, then straight down. It swirled, and stung when it hit us. There was nothing we could do, and the ponchos were worthless. But, as there was no visible lightning risk, the game continued on. We joked about Mom being right, as she always was, and agreed that, since we were as wet as we could get, we might as well stay out in it.
It was the most enjoyable moment I had experienced with Dad since I was a little kid.
We laughed, yelled, persevered through the monsoon, and watched the entire game. Ole Miss lost to Tennessee, which prompted a few curse words from each of us. Ruining our shoes, we fought our way through puddles, mud and running water to make it back to the car. In hopes of avoiding the usual traffic getting to the interstate, Dad asked me to drive, and to “take the back roads to my apartment.” I agreed, believing that, by avoiding traffic, it would be a quicker way to my apartment.
As I started his car, and turned on the radio, the unmistakable sound of “Soul Deep” by The Box Tops, featuring Alex Chilton on lead vocals, blared out of the speakers. Hearing Alex’s voice made me smile. It was a smile of gratitude. At that moment, it became obvious to me that my anger could have ruined my relationship with my father forever. But thanks to some unexpected wise words from that moody renegade musician known as Alex Chilton, I was able to see that Dad had never taken anything from me at all. In fact, Alex Chilton may very well have been the only person on planet Earth that could have gotten through to me about that issue. I cannot calculate how thankful I am that he did.
Maybe now I can figure out how to implement that four-day work week thing that Alex supported so passionately. I would love to have the extra day to spend with my family.
© John T. McMullan
Can you spot The Trend?